Part IV – Source Engine
Hello, gamers. In case the massive logo hasn’t tipped you off, we are exploring the marvellous Engine that is the Source gaming Engine. Whilst not as wide-spread as Unreal and not as technologically impressive as CryEngine, Bellevue-based Valve Corporation‘s Engine has its own strengths within the video game world, strengths that has seen Source Engine used in some of the most impressive games.
A little bit of history surrounding Source Engine sees its origins as what was called GoldSource (or GoldSrc for short). This Engine was a heavily modified version of id Software‘s Quake gaming Engine, developed by John D. Carmack. While GoldSrc, of course, was developed by Valve, a lot of what made Quake 1 a great a game was it had been carried over into the gaming Engine that gave birth to Valve’s first game, Half-Life, in 1998.
The first-person shooter’s key ingredients were from Quake 1 and the Engine that drove it, but Valve heavily modified the coding, greatly improving the AI and changing the decals and skeleton animation systems. Other changes that were made were quite simple and not necessarily fundamental, such as changing the lighting to RGB instead of 8-bit and converted the software rendering to 16-bit instead of the original 8-bit.
From that point onwards, what’s known now as Source was simply worked on over and over. Unlike any other gaming engine out there, Source doesn’t have the usual version numbering system (such as Source 1, Source 2 etc) but, due to it’s somewhat unique modular system, it was simply added to piece by piece until we have it as it is now.
And so, from when GoldSrc was made obsolete by its successor, it had became a very powerful gaming engine, one that, in 2004 ensured that your computer needed a vast upgrade in graphical power in order to run it. While Source deputed in the upgraded multiplayer shooter Counter-Strike: Source, it was know more for the amazing Half-Life 2, one of the greatest first-person shooters ever to be released. Trust me, I could go on and on about what I adore about the game, but this isn’t a review.
Instead, I’ll gush at how Source made Half-Life 2 such a great graphics powerhouse and, even more importantly, makes Half-Life 2 still stand up as a beautiful game even today. Again, what makes Source so unique among its Engine rivals is that Valve are able to upgrade the gaming engine over time, just as simply as software updates. In other words, instead of creating many iterations of the same Engine, they simply added more to the current Engine, each update significantly improving graphics fidelity and quality inside that one game. Cool, huh?
How this was achieved was through Valve’s online content distributor Steamworks (Steam for short). With each and every copy of Half-Life 2, sold at retail, it came with the installation for Steam. A login and an internet connection, and Half-Life 2 was connected to Valve’s servers and would be updated when Valve updates the Engine. Over time, textures mysteriously got sharper, graphical features were added and Gordon Freeman got shinier and more bloodied with each swing of his crowbar.
After Half-Life 2 was released, Valve then started a new gaming release campaign that saw the two future releases as Episodic content (hence Half-Life 2: Episode One and Episode Two). Apparently, it was supposed to facilitate quicker developments while keeping the same blockbuster Half-Life 2 feel – and yet, five years on, there is still no Episode Three. Why I mention this is that while the two games were in development, each one saw improvements to the Source Engine over that time.
Half-Life 2: Episode One concentrated more on character interaction, especially with the supporting character Alyx Vance. According to the commentary in the game itself, the developers improved Alyx’s body and facial animation to make her seem more human, to relate to her more in her struggle (especially when she’s travelling around with a silent protagonist). How she interacts with the enemies she encounters, as well as dynamically to what the player does (a section relies on the player using the suit’s flashlight to light up enemies so that Alyx could shoot them, for example) was also added to not only give the player a working AI partner, but also a way to show off the Source Engine and how it can be improved.
Graphically, the features included in Episode One were then ported to Half-Life 2 in order to keep the continuity true to the series – it would be quite a change to go from one game that has no bloom effects and no depth of field to a game that looks similar and yet has these features. Episode Two saw further improvements and added more features. This episode was centred more around vast environments and a reduced sense of linear play, and the improvements to the Engine helped create that. Giant draw distances, huge sky boxes and detailed forest environments were only a few of the additions to the Engine.
While the Source Engine was developed primarily for video games, it has seen many mods being created for the core Half-Life games as well as a special mod named Gary’s Mod (presumably developed by a chap named Gary), which is a sandbox utility where anything is possible while using objects and effects used within the game. Recently, a beta version of Valve’s new piece of software, named Source FilmMaker, enables anyone who wishes to make films use the full extent of the Source Engine to, well, make films inside the games themselves – the primary use was for Valve to make their ‘Meet the Team’ series to promote their class-based multiplayer shooter Team Fortress 2.
And so, Source is definitely something special. Valve developed some of the greatest pieces of technologically-driven entertainment in both video gaming and film making. Unlike Engines such as CryEngine 3 and Unreal Engine 3, we don’t have to look forward to Source‘s next version, because it is constantly getting better.
Coming soon – Part V : Frostbite Engine